McEvoy Gallery to Present A Life’s Journey: A Collection of Works of William Congdon in May

Portsmouth Abbey School is proud to present the artwork of American abstract artist William Grosvenor Congdon (1912–1998) through an exhibition titled A Life’s Journey: A Collection of Works of William Congdon, running May 1 through June 1, 2023, in the McEvoy Gallery of the McGuire Fine Arts Center. In addition to the gallery’s regular hours during the week for those on campus, the exhibition will be open during Spring Family Day from noon until 5:00 p.m. Public viewing hours for alumni and art enthusiasts have been scheduled for Sunday, May 7, and Sunday, May 14, from noon to 3:00 p.m. 

William Grosvenor Congdon was born in 1912 to a wealthy Rhode Island family. He was the cousin of the poet and actress Isabella Gardner, the great-niece of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the art collector, philanthropist and founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Congdon graduated from St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and received a degree in English Literature from Yale University in 1934. Following his years at Yale, he took drawing, painting and sculpture lessons from Henry Hensche and George Demetrios, studying for three years with each artist. In 1942, Congdon joined the American Field Service (AFS) as an ambulance driver during World War II. He served with the British Ninth and Eighth Armies, and as a member of the AFS, he was one of the first Americans to enter the Bergen Belsen concentration camp during its liberation near the end of the war. After the war, Congdon stayed with the AFS and did rehabilitation work in the hardest war-stricken areas of Italy. He prolifically recorded his travels in his diaries and made drawings documenting his experiences. In 1948, he returned to the United States, settling in the Bowery section of New York City. Congdon quickly gained fame as an Abstract Expressionist painter and is considered part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. There are characteristics of colleagues’ styles in some of his work, such as that of Jackson Pollock, Marc Rothko and Richard Pousette-Dart, but Congdon’s overall style remained his own, working mainly with palette knives and tools for scratching rather than a paintbrush. He had an incredible talent for creating a sense of light. Art collector Peggy Guggenheim compared him to the English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) when discussing Congdon’s paintings of Venice, Italy. 

Despite his growing success throughout the 1940s, Congdon had left the United States to live in Venice by the early 1950s. He continued to use Venice as his home base while traveling extensively throughout the decade. He converted to Roman Catholicism in Assisi, Italy, in 1959. He had frequently visited Assisi during his travels and moved there after his conversion. Congdon painted mostly religious iconography in his abstract style in the following years, creating over two hundred artworks of the Crucifixion alone. He exhibited very little at this point in his career. He continued to travel throughout the 1970s, creating work documenting those travels. In 1979, Congdon moved to a monastery in Gudo Gambaredo, near Milan, where he would live and remain an active painter for the rest of his life. 

Congdon’s oeuvre documents his world travels and examines the human condition, his religious conversion and his journey toward unique personal expression. The work displayed at the McEvoy Gallery was created between 1935 and 1996, with the majority representing a significant 25-year span of the artist’s career from 1935 to 1960. The exhibition is comprised of various sculptures, drawings and paintings, including Guernica (ca 1940), Spring 1950 (1950), Piazza San Marco (1957), Rome No.4 (1958), and Annunciation (1960).

The Portsmouth Abbey community graciously thanks Mr. Richard Berkemeier, Emmylou and Evangeline Bush, and the Portsmouth Abbey Monastery for loaning the William Congdon artworks for this exhibition. William Congdon was an important but often overlooked figure in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, and it is a rare opportunity to view such a comprehensive chronology of his work in one venue.

For questions about the exhibit, please contact Mark Nadeau, head of Visual Arts at the School.

Pictured: A rare Congdon sculpture, Guernica (The Year of Our Lord).  Painted Plaster Cast.  15 X 15 X 12 in.  (ca. 1940).